California’s infrastructure is drawing new attention in the wake of the tragic collapse of a bridge in Minnesota August 1st.

State transportation officials, Los Angeles County engineers and local elected leaders, keen to the public’s concern over high-profile catastrophes involving deteriorating infrastructure disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the recent collapse of the Interstate 35 West bridge in Minneapolis, are moving to assure Californians that although many bridges and freeway overpasses are in need of repair, the chances for a tragedy on the level of those in Minnesota and Louisiana are remote.

“Public safety is the administration’s number one priority,” said Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), in a statement following the Minnesota bridge collapse. “Caltrans has a very effective bridge inspection program in place in this state and any serious problems are quickly identified and immediately remedied.

“We also will immediately re-inspect all bridges with similar construction to the one that collapsed in Minnesota.”

Because of the ever-present danger of earthquakes, many of California’s bridges are built to higher specifications than bridges in other states, said Kemper.

“I have full confidence in the bridges on the state’s highway system and I would have no problem driving my family over any of those bridges,” he said.

Locally, state engineers believe that bridges like the one on La Cienega Boulevard that stretches over Ballona Creek, a heavily traveled conduit to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), is one of about 500 structures that may be at risk in case of a major earthquake.

On August 3rd, Los Angeles City Council called for an immediate study of the city’s bridges.

“This is an issue of public safety,” said local City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. “The Minneapolis tragedy was a wake-up call for us.

“We want to have a clear understanding of our bridge system and any safety issues that need to be addressed within our infrastructure,” said the councilman, who is the chair of the council’s Public Works Committee. “I would rather be safe than sorry.”

State inspectors completed an emergency structural inspection of 69 bridges Monday, August 6th, that are built with steel trusses — the same type design as the Minnesota bridge. The inspections found that none of them needed to be closed.

Douglas Failing, Caltrans director of District Seven, which covers Los Angeles County, believes that the region’s bridges and overpasses are not in grave disrepair.

“We are in relatively good shape,” the director told The Argonaut recently. “We have an active program of bridge inspection because of the seismic earthquake activity.”

Bond measures passed by the electorate last year have largely not been allocated for many of the planned retrofitting and seismic upgrades.

“The funds haven’t begun to flow yet,” Failing admitted, although some money has been allocated to local agencies.

Transportation officials and state and local lawmakers believed that the passage of the Proposition 1B bond measure last November was an important step toward making headway on the state’s growing infrastructure concerns. It provides nearly $20 billion in funding for transportation-related projects, including seismic retrofitting of state and local bridges and tunnels, and improved security and disaster response of transit systems, along with rehabilitating state highways and local roads.

In July, however, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Assembly supported a budget plan that would use $1.3 billion in funds earmarked for transportation needs from state gasoline tax revenues to reduce the state’s fiscal deficit, along with other cuts to various programs. Due to this action, Proposition 1B funds will be utilized to support existing infrastructure and current construction ventures, but planned transit projects like light rail extensions could be delayed.

But seismic retrofitting of freeway overpasses will not be postponed, transportation authorities say.

While there are some cases where portions of certain bridges are deteriorating, 90 percent of the county’s bridges are structurally sound, say transportation officials.

Failing said that the Federal Highway Commission ranks California seventh among the 50 states in infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, however, gave the Golden State a less flattering review. Last year, in its annual report card, the organization gave California’s infrastructure a D-plus.

“We looked at the condition and the capacity of California’s infrastructure, its master planning and operations and security,” explained Yazdan Emrani, who co-chaired the California committee that authored the report. Emrani, president of Advanced Infrastructure Management, a Brea-based civil engineering firm, agrees with Failing’s assertion that the state’s bridges largely were not in great disrepair.

“To a large extent, bridges in both Los Angeles and Orange counties are in good condition,” Emrani said.

The age of California’s bridges, roads and levees should be what transportation experts, engineers and lawmakers should be examining, said Failing.

“Our stuff is getting pretty old,” he acknowledged. “Right now, the money that we are allocating is insufficient to maintain our infrastructure.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report recommended that in order to bring the state up to a B from a D-plus, California would need to invest $37 billion a year over the next ten years, according to Emrani.

Caltrans conducts inspections of bridges and freeway overpasses biannually.

“Our bridges receive a very thorough inspection,” said Failing.

In Los Angeles, “There are 60 active projects that are being worked on for seismic upgrades,” said Tanya Durrell, a spokeswoman for the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works.

Durrell said that Los Angeles inspects its bridges every three years. Through its Bridge Improvement Program over the last several years, of the city’s 533 bridges, 148 have been upgraded.

Rosendahl’s committee is scheduled to meet Friday, August 10th, “to see where we are and what is the status of our bridges.”

The passage of the bond measure to improve the state’s infrastructure is a good start, says Emrani, but the effort must continue in order for California to bring its system of transportation, water, roads and bridges up to date.

“We’re playing catch-up after years of not allocating sufficient money to pay for our infrastructure needs,” he said. “We’re on the right track with the passage of Prop 1B, but that is not a panacea.

“We’ve got to make sure that we keep this going,” Emrani added. “Infrastructure doesn’t run on air.”

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